What is the point of the constitutional convention?
See Constitution.ie for the Constitution of Ireland and articles referenced. Tho for some reason, the downloadable version is missing Amendments passed since 2004.
I unfortunately have to agree with most of what Conor O’Mahony wrote in The Irish Times (‘This so-called constitutional convention is a charade’) and with Matthew Wall in agreement with him on PoliticalReform.ie (‘Confessions of a demoralised political scientist’). The proposed constitutional convention is a far cry from the Philadelphia convention in 1787 O’Mahony references. At this convention, delegates from the thirteen states rewrote the Articles of Confederation into an entirely new constitution, which though subject to 27 Amendments since its adoption in 1787, in the elements of the divisions and roles of the branches of government, has remained the broadly the same since then.
The Programme for Government agreed in March 2011 specified a number of issues for the convention:
- Review of our Dáil electoral system.
- Reducing the presidential term to 5 years and aligning it with the local and European elections
- Provision for same-sex marriage.
- Amending the clause on women in the home and encourage greater participation of women in public life.
- Removing blasphemy from the Constitution
- Possible reduction of the voting age.
- Other relevant constitutional amendments that may be recommended by the Convention.
Of course, the last item leaves the convention wide open, but there has been little to suggest that this will be a wide-ranging overview of the Constitution. This seems clear from the two items first on the agenda: whether to reduce the voting age from 18 to 17; and whether to reduce the presidential term from 7 years to 5 years. Satire could hardly devise two less pressing amendments.
I would vote against a reduction in the presidential term, unless it was in the context of a redefinition of the role. Reading Tom Reddy’s The Race for the Áras, I was reminded of the whole drawn-out distraction of last year. There are reasonable proposals for amendment on the president, making it one term only, or changing the nomination process, but having more frequent elections is not one.
I have an open mind on the voting age, though I think it would make sense to lower the voting age for local elections first, which does not require a referendum.
I would obviously welcome a referendum on same-sex marriage, and if it’s to have an airing in the constitutional convention first, so be it. But ultimately, it will be a fairly simple amendment, adding a subsection, “No two people may be excluded from marriage by reason of their sex”, to Article 41.3.
Section Article 41.2, “… her life within the home …”, should be deleted. Let’s not try to devise a statement on family life and the roles of parents that could in turn seem out-dated in a few decades’ time. This is really not the sort of thing for a constitution in any case. And delete the word “blasphemous” in Article 40.6.1° i.
So what should it discuss?
So of all the enumerated issues, that leaves the electoral system. This is the only one of these proposals that to my mind merits discussion by a convention, rather than a simple yes/no proposal that could be people to be debated like any other referendum.
Our system of election to the Dáil of proportional representation by single transferable vote is often blamed for clientelism and localism in Irish politics, leading to a subordination of national concerns to local issues. Would the Convention will reach a conclusion other than that of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution two years ago, to keep the current system? Perhaps, as the membership of that committee inevitably had a status quo bias, having been elected under the current system.
What I don’t understand is why the abolition of the Seanad is not on the agenda. This is the sort of issue that would actually benefit from being discussed in a convention. There are references to the Seanad throughout the Constitution. Of the 141 Fine Gael and Labour Oireachtas members, I’m sure there is a considerable number, even if a minority, who would have doubts about the merits of this proposal. I would be in two minds on whether we need a second chamber. Finland, with a comparable population to Ireland’s, has a unicameral chamber; Sweden and Portugal with twice our population also survive with just one chamber. Yet surely there is a benefit to legislation being heard in more than one chamber. There are problems with the current Seanad and I have problem with the democratic legitimacy of the current membership.
I would certainly be against any abolition of the Seanad without a corresponding reform of the role of the Dáil and its committees. The idea behind last year’s failed amendment to allow the Oireachtas to conduct inquiries was not without merit at some level. But it made no sense to rush it within it in the first few months of the government when this constitutional convention was due to happen. The Convention should also consider ways in which the balance of power between the executive and the legislature might be rebalanced.
I understand that Enda Kenny has a personal attachment and commitment to putting the abolition of the Seanad to the people, but we would surely benefit from considering this proposal in the context of the other institutions of government.
The Constitutional Constitution is a good idea, but let’s have one that matters, where none of the fundamental institutional issues which are being discussed in amendments to the constitution are left out of its consideration.